TURNING A PHOTOGRAPHIC SPARK INTO FIRE
LONE ROCK La Jolla, California
There we were on Shell Beach in La Jolla, California. If you consider shorts, a t-shirt and flip flops ideal attire, then the mid-August weather was just perfect. The sweet morning light was just beginning to show herself to those of us eager enough to be awake, which on this morning included myself and seven photography workshop participants who were joining me for one of my California workshops. Shell Beach seemed like an ideal location to take seven passionate photographers for a sunrise. It’s small and intimate, yet contains many elements that can be arranged well for a diverse style of seeing photographic compositions. It's only as wide as a football field, yet both sides lead upward to steep cliffs that stretch out toward the sea, undercut with partial caves on the sides and a scattering of rocks throughout the beach, with a couple large rocks just offshore where pelicans and cormorants linger about. Having photographed this spot many times before, I knew good compositional arrangements could be made. But I also knew that it is easy to include too much and fall short of success. So, an ideal setting to place students. Potential for success and failure, and then an opportunity to discuss it all together afterwards.
Less than an hour into our shoot, everyone was quite enthralled and working toward making photographs. I had been bouncing from one participant to the next, spending a few minutes at a time with each, when I approached Mark at the far end of the beach. Mark, a semi-retired entrepreneur who had now turned his extra curricular energy towards photography, was well on his way to a nice portfolio of strong landscape work after a short couple of years. As I approached him, he was breaking down his tripod, as if just finishing up a shot. "Let me see what you're up to?" I asked, gesturing toward the camera. He showed me the last few frames he had made and I was stunned, "These are great!" I announced. "I love the composition - how these two rocks are balanced and lead your eye inward to this 3rd rock which is the focal point." I explained what was working and why, and why the image resonated with me the way it did. Then, I went on to explain what would make it better, and more dynamic. "If you were to wait until a larger wave came into this area of the frame, it would give further separation between these rocks, strengthening the entire image. Get back in there and recompose it, and stick with it. This is now the only composition here that matters for you.”
All seven of the workshop participants had the same tendency - to go from one compositional arrangement to the next to the next, without ever delving deeply into any of them. Whether it was working well or not, they all tended to make a few frames and move on. Now, that's cool if the composition isn't working, but in many of the cases, including the example with Mark, they would be on to something strong and compelling, and in some cases knew it, but then still only explored the composition at surface level, without committing deeper to it.
I told Mark, and soon after all the others, "When we are out photographing, we are running around with a little rock. We are banging our little rock all over the surface of things until we find a spark. That spark is what we are looking for. It’s when things are lining up and resonating with us. It's inspiration. Our goal is to find that spark, and then baby that thing and make a fire. Have you ever made a fire in nature using only a spark? It’s not easy. It requires careful attention and effort. You have to have all your elements prepped and waiting and then carefully and attentively turn that little spark into fire. Once you've committed your efforts and have turned a spark into a fire, then your fire can be felt by others. They can feel it's warmth, and be comforted by it. This is the same with the photographs. You seek out these sparks of inspiration where these external elements align with something inner and personal, and then you've got to commit to making a fire. When we come to this beach, your goal is not to make ten sparks. It is to make one fire!"
All seven of the photographers were making sparks, but not realizing that a deeper commitment was necessary, that they had yet to make fire. This is one of the primary differences between successful image makers and unsuccessful image makers, the willingness and understanding to go deeper once the spark is made.
After 20 more minutes of committing to the composition with the rocks, Mark had successfully made a stronger image and had reached that point where he could say to himself, "There is nothing more I can do to strengthen this photograph." He had made fire.
First there's a spark. With careful attention and effort, you turn that little spark into a fire. Once you've turned a spark into fire, then your fire can be felt and enjoyed by others. They will feel it's warmth, and be comforted by it. Make fire with your photographs.